Cycle trip to ‘forbidden’ Cuba costs pensioner


Daily Telegraph (England), Mar. 9, 2003
By Walter Ellis in New York

Joan Slote would be a remarkable American even if she were not facing a fine of almost £5,000 for visiting Cuba and returning with gifts worth £8.50 for her grandchildren.

A medal-winner in the 1993 Senior Olympics, 74-year-old Mrs Slote, from San Diego, California, is fitter than most women half her age and sees the world as one vast cycle track.

USA*ENGAGE is a broad-based coalition representing Americans from all regions, sectors and segments of our society concerned about the proliferation of unilateral foreign policy sanctions at the federal, state, and local level. Despite the fact that unilateral sanctions rarely achieve our foreign policy goals, they continue to have political appeal. Unilateral sanctions give the impression that the United States is “doing something,” while American workers, farmers and businesses absorb the costs. Even now, well-organized activists are lobbying to further restrict US companies and farmers from doing business in major overseas markets.

Unilateral sanctions threaten our future by ceding America’s fastest-growing export markets to our foreign competitors and damaging the reputation of US manufacturers and farmers as reliable suppliers. When the government takes US business and agriculture out of a market, it provides foreign suppliers a huge unearned advantage. Equally damaging are recent laws restricting overseas operations of US companies and imposing secondary boycotts on our allies. These actions can put American companies in a position where it is impossible to comply with both US and host country law.

While working Americans pay the price, America gets hardly anything in return. In fact, sanctions take away American’s best tools for advancing human rights and democracy — US political and economic engagement. At the same time, secondary boycotts have angered our closest allies, who support our security, foreign policy, and human rights goals, but object to such measures as serious infringements of their sovereignty and violations of international law. Ultimately, these sanctions discredit American diplomacy and leadership.

See Also:
Time to End the U.S. Embargo on Cuba, Human Rights Watch

When she and her friend, Amy Olsen, booked a cycling holiday in Cuba three years ago via a travel agent in Toronto, it never occurred to her that she was pedalling to disaster. Although successive US administrations have placed travel and commercial restrictions on Cuba, Mrs Slote deliberately travelled from Canada, not the United States.

While Americans are banned from visiting Cuba unless they have a licence to do so on religious, humanitarian, educational or journalistic grounds, her trip would begin and end in the jurisdiction of a third country.

On the way home, Mrs Slote crossed the border between Canada and the United States where customs officials asked if she had anything to declare. “Only a few little things I got my grandchildren when I was in Cuba,” she replied, before being allowed to pass unimpeded back into US territory.

Fifteen months later, she received a “pre-penalty” warning letter from US Customs, advising her that she faced a fine of $7,500 for visiting Cuba, in contravention of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations 1963. An extra $130 was added for the purchase of the trinkets. Mrs Slote was shocked.

“It never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong,” she said.

Her son, Jack, was dying at the time from a brain tumour. Mrs Slote asked for her hearing with US Customs to be postponed. They did not respond. Instead, the fine was confirmed and Mrs Slote was asked to pay up.

Joan’s friend Amy, a schoolteacher 40 years her junior, faced a similar fine. Both appealed, pointing out that the travel company through which they had booked their holiday stated explicitly that Canadian law, not US law, applied to their tours.

The women took their trip in January 2000. Since then, lawyers working for the human rights organisation Global Exchange, which organises educational trips to Cuba, have taken up the case and the pair are still awaiting the outcome of their appeal.

Under President George W. Bush, the long-standing embargo on Cuba, which is enforced mainly out of deference to Right-wing Cuban exile groups dedicated to the overthrow of Fidel Castro, has been policed with greater force.

The number of American visitors to Cuba who have been sought for breaking the embargo has quadrupled. The US Treasury now warns people who visit without permission that they could face fines of up to $55,000.

Last April James Sabzala, a Jamaican-born Canadian citizen with business interests in Pennsylvania, was convicted of selling water purification equipment to Cuban hospitals and advised that he faced a lengthy prison sentence as well as a substantial fine.

Almost one year on, the Justice Department has consistently delayed his sentence but, in the meantime, Mr Sabzala – a leading member of the US Quality Water Association – has been placed under house arrest, an electronic tracking device fixed to his ankle.

Mrs Slote, whose monthly income is just $1,200, cannot afford to pay her fine but refuses to be cowed by what she regards as a ridiculous infringement of her liberties. “My grandchildren don’t know whether to avoid me or brag about me,” she says.

The cyclist plans a less controversial destination for her next trip – the Cotswolds.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday March 9, 2003.
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